1871: Rivers on Fire

by Paul Buchheit

book review by Carolyn Davis

“He was more than likely assisting homeless people up north, as I was doing here. But he would certainly get word to me. Somehow.”

The main crises presented in this multi-dimensional work are the Great Chicago Fire and the significantly more destructive burn, the Peshtigo fire. The story, which is given credence as a historical novel not only for its dramatic and factual rendering of past events but also the inclusion of actual people such as a mentor, “Dr. Bain,” centers on a couple named Liz and Robert.

Well in advance of many women of her own or any modern time in Western culture, Liz, like her partner, is studying neuroscience. The couple’s journey begins in England, and science, fate, or perhaps love takes them to Chicago for further study and other revelations. Throughout their changes and personal discoveries, the couple sustains a belief in themselves that propels them to success. However, their greatest challenges await them when Liz is facing the fire in Chicago and does not know the fate of Robert, who is in Peshtigo.

The author manifests his ability to skillfully weave many aspects of life and perspective into the book. There are keen observations about class and ethnic prejudices and exclusions. One example is the scarcity of food the Irish passengers have access to during the trans-Atlantic crossing. General socioeconomic and environmental conditions are part of the saga as well. Love, hope, work, and the forces of nature are entwined throughout, as is the ability to experience destruction at the most visceral level. Ultimately, societies recover from catastrophes, learn and change somewhat, and, ultimately, adapt in order to survive. The author deftly shows that thought, love, and care are a part of that adaptation.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

My Book of Revelations: Stories that burst the bubble of believability

by Gerry Burke
iUniverse

book review by Kate Robinson

“Who represents the typical American psyche more than Homer Simpson?”

Fans of the twisted and quirky will embrace this compendium of tales that range from fan fiction to fractured fairy tales to alternate history, then emerge at the end with undampened enthusiasm for the brilliance that almost masquerades at times as kitsch. With an impressive collection of published novels, short stories, and essays to his credit, Australian humorist Burke has practiced his craft thoroughly before penning this award-winning volume. In addition to the fantasies, magical realism, and the downright weird noir, Burke also presents numerous parodies of popular literary and film characters as well as real-life celebrities. Even the story subtitles, much like the intertitles of silent movies, will leave readers in stitches.

This adult storybook (billed for children under thirty) is organized in four sections covering history, heroes, horror, and Hollywood. From the American West’s excesses to the svelte glamour of James Bond, Burke deals with just about every North American and British commonwealth cultural icon imaginable, musing upon themes of bloodshed, chaos, criminal escapade, and human frailty. Even the Bible isn’t immune to the author’s rib-tickling predations. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The author has also created many of his own indubitably memorable characters, some new and some introduced in previous work.

The prose is rapid-fire, and unlike some humorists and comics, Burke has an extensive, high-quality vocabulary that he’s obviously not afraid to use. He shares the knack for nuance and timing that stand-up comedians employ and a dizzying way of plowing on through laugh after laugh. If a reader doesn’t like how a newsworthy or literary event happened, then it’s quite likely that Burke has penned a funnier and far more interesting alternative in this collection.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Harnessing the Power of Grief

by Julie Potter, MSW, LCSW
MSI Press
book review by Barbara Bamberger Scott

“Exploring the many ways grief may manifest helps you to accept what you are experiencing as normal and to accept the experience of others.”

With her background in coordinating hospital-based bereavement programs, author Potter presents a depth of information for anyone in the midst of grief, anticipating grieving circumstances, or looking back on the intensity of loss and reacting to that memory. She examines the way different cultures, past and present, accept and incorporate grief. She presents four “tasks” for the grieving person to follow: accepting the reality of loss, experiencing the pain, adjusting to the world without a loved one, and embarking on a new life that will include rituals and reminders of the departed. Variables include whether the death is sudden or expected, whether the grief begins with a gradual loss (as in the case of a partner with Alzheimer’s), how the death changes our routines of life, and factors impacted by our particular psychological make-up. Potter also provides suggestions for friends of the bereaved and reminds readers that though a grieving person often feels isolated, “we are all in this together alone.”

Potter’s wide-ranging manual of grieving and growth stems from her professional knowledge and includes many personal vignettes from that realm of observation. She recognizes that though each of us must grieve in our own way, there is a commonality of the process that can allow for considered activities. She includes helpful tables that readers can utilize, such as columns comparing/contrasting “Fears I am experiencing” and “Angers I am experiencing.” With wisdom that ranges from humorist Art Buchwald and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh to author C. S. Lewis and psychologist William Worden, she portrays the reality of grief that encompasses many scenarios and personalities. With fresh, highly informative material on every page, Potter offers intelligent, sensitive guidelines meriting thoughtful study, along with pragmatic, readily accessible approaches from which anyone can benefit at any stage of the grief experience.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Mom’s Gone Missing: When a Parent’s Changing Life Upends Yours

by Susan A. Marshall
HenschelHAUS Publishing
book review by Michelle Jacobs

“Working with someone whose mental capabilities are compromised is a constant exercise in patience and acceptance.”

When Susan Marshall gets the phone call from her brother telling her that her mother is missing, she is shocked to find that her mother is descending into dementia just months after her father has succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Marshall finds herself wholly unprepared to face the myriad of decisions that arise as she navigates the health, financial, and legal issues that come with caring for her mother. In addition, she must untangle the frustrations and expectations of her siblings when they lose both parents within ten months of each other. Exploring aging, dying, and caregiving issues, Marshall shares her singular experience as a daughter coming to terms with the past and all its choices, forking paths, and a future without her parents. Her account movingly connects to universal truths and familiar tribulations that offer readers comfort and support. Marshall views her writing and reflection as “a hand extended,” which is a fitting gesture that matches the words and revelatory stories in this memoir. This honest story of caring for her mother is truly an offering to those seeking another’s experience of preparing for and watching a parent slowly diminish from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Marshall’s vital memoir doesn’t shrink from the complexities that come with aging parents. She examines past resentments from childhood and beyond, acknowledges lingering hurts, and questions the limits of sacrificing parts of her life to caregiving. This brave and honest account will truly make others feel less alone on their journey toward understanding the pain and confusion that comes with aging parents. This strange stage of life when the children must begin making decisions for their parents is deeply unsettling and fraught with stress. Marshall’s wisdom comes from hard-fought experiences living through it but, more importantly, feeling through it and reporting from the other side with truth. She is often overwhelmed by emotion and uncertainty. Still, she finds a way forward in hope, allowing her parents to continue to teach her valuable lessons as they go first into the great mysteries of life. They seem to light the way for her, and she, in turn, lights the way for anyone lost in the despair of watching a loved one disappear slowly. For many, this endeavor with aging parents comes with feelings of isolation. However, Marshall desires to encourage and lead the way by inspiring dignity and fairness as children guide their parents at the end of life.

Many books from doctors, therapists, and other experts offer advice and plans for families caring for parents with dementia or Alzheimer’s. These how-to books can help families manage the logistics and treatment options, but they are often clinical and distant as they dispense with the stark details, the cold reality. Marshall’s memoir fills in all the gaps, the empty spaces in the how-to books that can only be occupied by someone living in the reversal of all the roles bestowed by nature and the normal order of things. Marshall captures the staggering burden of decision-making, the bone-weary ache of sadness, and the unexpected fester of resentment. The result is “information and encouragement to anyone who is now or will one day be confronting the declining health and ultimate passing of a parent or beloved family member.”

A 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Your Father has Something to Tell You

by Dave Riese
Flying Heron Publishing

book review by Mari Carlson

“Only now do I find the empty space inside me where he had always lived.”

Mark returns to Massachusetts from Chicago-land on short notice and during a stressful work period to visit sick parents. He and his sister worry they’ve started drinking again, a habit they promised their kids years ago that they had quit for good. After the visit, when Mark is passed over for a promotion, he finds new work around Boston. As his parents deteriorate over the next few years, Mark laments the dwindling time he has with them and revisits haunting childhood memories.

The opening scene sets the novel’s stressful tone. Boston bustle, hectic schedules, and chaotic healthcare atmospheres create a harried background in which subsequent chapters delve into moments showing the aging process. Watching his mom experience a series of falls, Mark returns to moments of insecurity from childhood in which he kept secrets. He tells stories about regrets stealing and cheating as a kid. He recalls his embarrassment of trying to buy cigarettes for his mom. His dad’s harsh treatment of him causes him to doubt his love. The frequent back and forth between time periods illustrates the fraught connections between past and present.

Alongside the string of heavy memories, dedicated familial bonds are forged through candid dialogue. Some conversations about race between relatives show cultural shifts. Dramatic confessions by Mark’s dad and the unveiling of his mom’s family scandal fill out Mark’s impressions of his parents and resolve some mysteries in his life. Details describing care facilities, hospitals, and homes keep the story realistic and down to earth. The articulation of feelings is sincere and balanced. Depictions of growing up in the 1960s evoke the color and emotion of the time. These and present-day scenes come together in an even-paced (if anticlimactic) plot. Easy-to-relate-to characters elucidate universal conundrums for a compassionate and cathartic read.

Viral War: A Fairytale of Perfect Women

by Josephine deBois
AuthorHouse
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“And now, perfect women; yes, but we always managed to make women perfect.”

In New York City, Samuel, an ordinary traffic cop, manages to thwart an attempted kidnapping. This sets him on an investigation like no other. He befriends Sohee Suh, the acclaimed Korean singer who was almost kidnapped. Sohee’s DNA carries a secret that Samuel works to uncover, exposing a complex plot involving sex trafficking, government coverups, and biological warfare.

Taking place in the aftermath of a war that has left women dangerous and vulnerable, this sci-fi crime thriller explores what happens when one country’s leader proposes an idea that would keep the peace in his country but involve unethical procedures. The author’s tale examines a handful of issues that are at the forefront of humanity’s relationship with technology, as well as with itself. Kun Yun-Junk, the leader of Korea and antagonist in this book, aims to manipulate the will of the people so that “everybody will do as we want them to do.” Yun-Junk’s vision stems from the desire to make women, specifically women who have been sex trafficked, more complacent and more willing to please. It then evolves into an idea of controlling people and creating perfect citizens to be “the foundation of the future of humanity.” On top of that, Kun Yun-Junk’s vision has a built-in fail-safe of a biological weapon in the form of a virus that can be activated in designated people.

The idea of building a perfect person (or the ideal woman) is common in science fiction but usually relates to building a humanoid robot. The author takes that concept a step further by having the “perfect women” be human, manufactured since birth. It’s an ethical issue that throws up a lot of red flags and is made even more sinister by the fact that there’s a whole governmental organization funding and hoping to profit from this project.

Written in script format like TV episodes, the story starts with Jo Chin-Sun, a young woman in a brothel who plays the kayagum. Chin-Sun is the catalyst for the perfect woman experiment by the Korean government, as it is her escape from trafficking and the discovery of her post-mortem that leads to Kun Yun-Junk’s idea. This setup of the story comprises about one-fifth of the book and is a bit slow in that it takes a while to see where the story is going. But once this is established, the book transforms into an interesting, unconventional crime procedural.

The most compelling character is Sohee, who is aware of the strange occurrences happening in her home country, but who is also fighting to establish herself as more than just a singer. Sohee doesn’t want to be famous. She wants to use her singing ability for a greater cause. While similar to the antagonist’s vision, the outcome of Sohee’s actions is far different and more positive.

Additionally, the author does a great job of keeping music central to the story, in everything from the presence of the kayagum instrument to Sohee’s performances. There are many instances in the novel where characters say that the kayagum, when its strings are plucked, tells a story. As that instrument and its melody are passed around, the story is spread throughout the world. The author manages to make the music a counterpoint against the evil happening in the narrative, acting as a healing balm and thus adding to the fairytale.

Credit the Crocodile: A Tale of Political Intrigue and International Adventure Involving Wildlife

by Godfrey Harris
The Americas Group
book review by Mihir Shah

“I want them to know what it’s like to live constantly on guard for enemies, constantly on the lookout for your next meal.”

Paul Martin and Tyler Williams are determined to give purpose to their gap year. At just eighteen years of age, the newly minted high school graduates immediately gravitate to Animal Welfare Enterprises’ mission. What ensues is a trip to the South African countryside town of Happy Hollow with the intent of awakening the community to animal mistreatment on the Stewart farm and “to free the crocodiles” from any barriers that keep them from their natural habitat. It doesn’t take long for this seemingly innocent freedom of expression by the boys to snowball into endless sequences of chaos and repercussions by a community and authorities determined to make an example of the duo.

Harris shifts the point of view routinely from the boys and their encounter with the people of Happy Hollow to Credit the Crocodile’s journey and observations on the entire fiasco. To add further intrigue, Credit is incredibly observant and thinks critically about everything that happens around him, even if it is just musing on how parrots communicate on where to set their nests for mating season. The author effectively uses Credit’s character in the novel to shed light upon the atrocities against other wildlife, primarily the ruthless slaughter of elephants in Kenya for their ivory and rhinos being killed in South Africa for their horns. There are numerous examples, but the more one thinks, the more one is forced to wonder whether humans aren’t truly the “mindless beasts” in this entire cycle of predator and prey.

With the debate raging and teetering on outrage, Mrs. Nabala simply, yet vehemently, insists that wild animals cannot be respected if restrained within enclosures like zoos, as is largely the case in the United States. Ironically, the boys are so engrossed in their own perspective and words that they fail to see the resentment building up with every speech they make. While the mayhem only builds up for Paul and Tyler, the author provides a refreshing backstory of how Credit’s desire to learn the meaning of individual sounds through rhythm and tone from the Stewart’s son, Stephen, helped him evolve into an Obi Wan-esque character, the seemingly omniscient wiseman of the entire reptilian clan. When their paths inevitably intersect, Paul and Tyler are direct recipients of Credit’s generosity and knowledge of the English language. Their lives unquestionably depend on their understanding and trust in him.

When Andy Mitchell, police chief of Happy Hollow, becomes privy to this gathering, he, along with Tom, the owner of Stewart Farm, immediately sets out to make an example of the boys. In unraveling the gravity of Paul and Tyler’s predicament, the author seamlessly integrates several critical ideas that should not be overlooked. Chiefly, his characters are emphatically against the idea of outsiders coming to fix what isn’t broken in the name of humanitarianism that dates back to colonial rule. Whereas Andy and Tom are steadfast in bringing the boys down, Stephen and Credit want to help the boys out of their predicament while simultaneously ingraining in their minds that preconceived notions prevent them from seeing just how beneficial the farm is to the crocodiles’ existence and, on a grander scale, the existence and employment of a large portion of the Happy Hollow community.

The plot reaches a breakneck pace when Paul and Tyler are sentenced to two weeks of living in the bush. With the help of other crocodiles like Cynthia and Cecil, Credit is determined to make a breakthrough with the boys, both in helping them survive the two weeks from all the wild animals as well as showing them the difficulty life would present to the crocodiles if they were forced to live that “on-edge-all-the-time” lifestyle in their version of the wild. In particular, the comparison between the bush of Happy Hollow and the San Diego Wild Animal Park paints a stark contrast between the two and helps Credit make his point with far greater intensity.

As the boys’ interact with Credit, their journey to a greater understanding of freedom and captivity begins. Though the political angle is referenced consistently throughout the novel, Harris uses Credit to send a far greater message to the boys, the animal welfare organization, and society as a whole: understand what a nation’s realities are (in this case, South Africa and Happy Hollow) and communicate with those that they think may be oppressed so they can get a complete, assumption-free snapshot of the entire situation. Despite Paul and Tyler coming across as naive and almost robotic in their regurgitation of AWE manuals, Harris does a commendable job of showing their character arc and propelling them further into their purpose with the help of Credit. With fluid prose and thoughtful content, the novel engages and challenges the glamorization of “doing good,” making for a meaningful read.

Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation

by J. W. Freiberg
Philia Books

book review by Kat Kennedy

“Loneliness, I realized, is the sensation of inadequate connections to others, just as hunger is the sensation of inadequate nourishment and thirst is the sensation of inadequate hydration.”

Consisting of five stories taken from the author’s work as a lawyer, this book offers a study in the causes of subjective chronic loneliness in those whose connections with other people “fail to provide the security, nurturing, and soothing care that others enjoy from their healthy connective networks.” In looking over his many years of case studies, the author narrows down the types of misconnections experienced by the chronically lonely into five categories: “Tenuous Connections,” in which the connections between clients are uncertain or unreliable; “One-Way Connections”—for example, unrequited love; “Fraudulent Connections,” wherein one’s relationship is based on deception and manipulation; “Obstructed Connections,” where one is prevented from being emotionally available; and “Dangerous Connections,” in which the relationship can cause devastating emotional and physical harm. For each of these misconnections, Freiberg includes a case study from one of his past clients to illustrate how people who are in relationships with others may still suffer loneliness because of the failure of their relationships to offer healthy connections.

The five case studies presented in this work are exceptional tales of the human experience. Some are heart-wrenching as they deal with innocent children who find themselves at the mercy of the adults in their lives. Others deal with the bizarre turns that life can take and the human capacity to see what one wants to see even to the point of denying an unmistakable truth. Each fascinating story is told through the voice of a master storyteller, which renders the text fluid and engaging while instilling its subjects with a humanity which elevates them far beyond a case study in a folder. One feels for each of these people as they navigate the legal system, gaining respect for the author and his role in helping them. There is much to learn about humanity, as well as the nuances of loneliness in the author’s work.

Freiberg has a unique position from which to address the issue of loneliness through the lens of litigation. He began his career as a social psychologist after obtaining his PhD at UCLA and spending a decade as a professor at Boston University. After receiving his J.D. at Harvard, he embarked on his long career as a lawyer. Having experience in both fields gives him a unique perspective on the modern phenomenon of loneliness and how it contributed to particular law cases on which he worked. This is the third of Freiberg’s books on the subject. The award-winning first, Four Seasons of Loneliness (2016), deals with four case studies from his law practice, one from each season of life. The second, Growing Up Lonely (2018), is a collection of papers, for which he served as editor, from the 2018 Symposium on Childhood Loneliness held at the Kennedy Center in Boston, MA. Each has received accolades from professionals in child psychology, with Four Seasons of Loneliness garnering the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Prize.

It is impossible to read these case studies without being profoundly impacted by the people involved. What Freiberg has done is to take the legal notes on each case and put a very human face on each one, all the while revealing his own deeply felt concern for his clients and their circumstances. This is a riveting read that will forever change the way one looks at chronic loneliness and the connections between humans.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done

by Charlie Gilkey
Sounds True
book review by Yousra Medhkour

“You have to lose yourself in the project only to find you’re a different person on the other side, for as we create, we’re creating ourselves.”

When striving toward achievement with any sort of project or goal, most are all too familiar with getting sidetracked or lost along the way. Whether it be dwindling motivation, a lack of time to focus on the things that matter to you because of family and work obligations, or procrastination, Gilkey provides a detailed plan of getting the gears into motion and finishing the projects you’ve started—more specifically what he calls your “best work.” This concept of best work is a powerful one because it highlights that the projects you want to do are the ones that will fill you with meaning and purpose in life. Your best work isn’t just a task to check off on a list once complete, but a means for you to thrive.

To explain what best work is and the habits you need to break or make for it, Gilkey divides his book into three parts that include a total of ten chapters. The importance of the book’s structure is that it allows the reader to dive into any section of their choosing, depending on what they want to learn. In other words, if a person skips a few chapters or starts in the second or third part, one is still bound to gain knowledge that will help a person better strive towards finishing their best work.

One of the aspects of this book that makes it engaging and helpful is that it’s not just a list of steps to follow. Rather than providing lists to follow robotically, Gilkey shares practical advice that takes into account that the reader is human. He says, “Doing your best work will thus require you to constantly be on the verge of failing,” because if it wasn’t your best work, you wouldn’t be putting your capabilities to the test. It wouldn’t be easy. There will be downfalls, and you will—more often than not—be your worst enemy or obstacle that gets in the way of accomplishing your best work.

In fact, Part One of this book is not just a guide to getting around external barriers but also a motivational discussion that focuses on the internal—how to convince yourself that you are capable of more than you often give yourself credit for. Following the whys of our woes and how to get past the obstacle of ourselves, Part Two is where Gilkey begins to layout methods to getting your best work out into the world. Though he provides an influx of advice, what strings it all together is his detailed look at both goal-making and organization. Without these two factors, reaching the finish line is extremely difficult. He describes how simple things such as adding verbs to your to-do list, splitting a task into smaller chunks to make it less daunting, and more can make an incredible difference. Gilkey even explains how environment, sound, and smell can have an astonishing impact on getting work done. All of these factors sizzle down to organization, whether through schedules (as discussed in Part Three), your surroundings, the people you choose to be your supporters, etc. Essentially, Gilkey accomplishes showing rather than telling as he uses his experience, both as a leader in the Army and through his research and interaction with clients.

Moreover, even the aesthetic of the book’s layout portrays more than its face value. Every page is crisp and neatly designed, largely thanks to the plethora of white space both around and between pages. It makes the book look inviting rather than intimidating, emphasizes the sense of organization that Gilkey says is key to success in any project, and makes it easier to read because of the lack of visual distractions that some other books might have. Gilkey’s conversational writing style also makes it easy to read as it carries his points across without a stutter.

The 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Winner

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Born Crazy

by Bonnie Sanford Collins Bostrom
The Canelo Project
book review by Kate Robinson

“The journey requires of us the ability to leap into darkness, play tag with time and break our own hearts.”

Bostrom’s childhood in the 1940s on a remote ranch in northeastern New Mexico gives her a unique grasp of the rhythms of the natural world, and the simple life oriented toward family and community that shaped her requires a great deal of stamina, resolve, and patience. Bostrom reveals much about the matriarchs of both sides of her family as well as paying homage to the patriarchs, offering a window into the ongoing manifestation of the divine feminine that arises in all cultures. The title seems to nod not only to the oddities and imperfections of Bostrom’s life but to the crazy wisdom that is inherent in the very act of living. She humorously points out in one essay that sperm are both male and female, a simple but revelatory fact not acknowledged in what many see as the patriarchal slant of American culture.

The down-to-earth prose keeps the settings and relationships of the author’s life real and accessible, and the tightly woven entries are just the right length, imbued with the right level of artful thoughtfulness to keep readers interested in turning pages. The essays alone would not be enough to convey the messages that Bostrom sought to share, and these are greatly enhanced and even eclipsed by her finely-tuned, evocative poems and her colorful, cosmically influenced artwork. Bostrom is a poet, philosopher, and visionary artist at heart. It is the verse and visuals of this book that illumine the universal quest for enlightenment. The sublime truth of her mind’s true nature arose through the mundane but fascinating discipline of ranch life and the many hills and valleys of adulthood.

Bostrom recognizes the historical relevance of her childhood, coming of age, and journeys through stages of her adult life commencing in the colorful beatnik era of the late fifties and the psychedelic and conflicted sixties. She allows us to examine her relationships and welcomes our companionship on her spiritual journey. She invites us to freely explore the spiritual path that we all create in one form or another because we are consciousness embedded in material, finite bodies. Bostrom reminds us with nature-based imagery in word and pigment that the spiritual element of life inspires artistic and creative inquiry, even in the simplest or most tormented of lives. This creativity is like a lotus rising from the mud of impermanent physicality to the beauty of the infinite:

How down to the bone our fantasies lie
Like ancient lichen on rotting wood
The green dreams grow.

When we rode our rockets to the moon
Were we actually looking for heaven?
That place, myth tells us,
Where we reunite with family, friends
And winged beings that need no rockets to fly.

This could be just another creatively crafted but ordinary memoir, except that the volume reads like the intimate journal of a true artisan drinking deeply from the well of universal human desire for spiritual equanimity and transformation: “We write for others so they can share what is really a very personal missive to ourselves . . . hunger, pain, grief and suffering bind us. Beauty, joy, compassion and love are even stronger bonds.” Bostrom’s exquisite sharing of her life and thoughts is a gift to be savored.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review